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What I Loved
John Mark Comer’s book is a biblically grounded, engaging read for those of us who struggle with anxiety and depression disorders. As I work on my own book (Struck Down but Not Destroyed: Living Faithfully with an Anxiety Disorder), I’ve gained several insights and also noticed common threads in our advice to fellow strugglers. Here’s a quick overview of what I loved about the book.
- The book itself is a work of art. Aesthetics are not all that important to some readers, but this book is beautifully crafted. The layout is creative, informative, and reflects the author’s focus on Scripture. I think publishers can do more these days to be creative in the layout of books.
- Comer’s descriptions of experience resonate with readers who share his suffering. I’m speaking in the first person here. I found his descriptions of anxiety’s effects to be accurate and gripping, which really helps you commune with him as a writer and trust that he sincerely wants to help.
- His approach is steeped in Scripture. It’s not therapeutic or self-help oriented; it’s biblical, plain and simple. Specifically, he draws much wisdom from the Psalms and from the story of the Apostle Paul. Both of these “countries” in Scripture have much to offer the weary traveler who combats anxiety and depression.
- He emphasizes the ‘right’ things, from a biblical perspective. There are basically three avenues to develop in biblical discussions of anxiety and depression: (1) the need for Scripture, (2) the need for prayer, and (3) the need for the church. As I’ve done in In Divine Company, he draws our attention to the necessity of communion with God. And how do we have that communion? By hearing God’s voice in Scripture, speaking back to him in prayer (and worship), and throwing ourselves on the body of Christ, the church.
- He encourages a holistic (and biblical) view of humanity, as body and spirit image bearers. How you think, what you eat, and what you do are all related to your overall picture of health. Too few Christians, in my opinion, are aware of this. And Scripture is key to all three. We need to be much more discerning about what we fill our minds with (the truth of God’s word), what we fill our bodies with (diets rich in vegetables, low in sugar, and less processed “junk”), and how much we exercise those bodies. These aren’t peripheral problems; they’re central. We can’t elevate the spiritual life and ignore or disregard our bodies. If we do, the suffering of soul and body will be symbiotic. A trashed soul hurts the body; a trashed body hurts the soul.
What I Would Have Liked
However, I do have some cautions to issue for readers. Here are some things I would have liked, elements that I think the book is lacking. I’ll be doing my best to avoid these issues in my own book (though I’m sure I’ll produce others in the process).
- Comer refuses to categorize anxiety and depression as diseases; instead, he says they are manifestations of deeper spiritual sins. I don’t have space here to get into the whole debate concerning how we classify mental illnesses, but I don’t think we can reduce anxiety and depression disorders to purely spiritual problems. They certainly are spiritual problems, and that focus should be primary for Christians. In my book, for instance, I’ll talk about an anxiety disorder as a spiritual tool in the hands of God. We should prioritize the spiritual purpose that God has for every detail of our lives. But I think it does more harm than good to be reductionistic here. In fact, it makes many Christians feel guilty (myself included). I know that wasn’t Comer’s intent, but if you’re really struggling with an anxiety or depression disorder and someone comes along and tells you, “You have a sin problem,” you’re going to feel guilt, not liberation. Granted, in some cases (maybe even many cases), that guilt may be healthy and needed. But not all cases. Our bodies in the 21st century are broken in ways we have not fully understood (and may never fully understand). We need to be careful with diagnosis and avoid simplicity unless it’s warranted.
- There may have been some anachronism here and there. We confront very different societal, medical, and technological environments today, as compared to people in ancient times. I’m not sure it means the same thing to say that David or the psalmists suffered from an “anxiety or depression disorder.” Sure, anxiety and depression more broadly are universal human experiences. No one would contest that. But I consider an anxiety or depression disorder to be on a different level. In other words, I don’t think we can take all medical, psychological, and spiritual issues today and import them into the past without qualification. Unfortunately, I think Comer is guilty of that in several places. We need to be very careful about (1) recognizing universal, timeless human struggles and (2) distinguishing historically-situated problems that have arisen in light of a drastically different environment.
- There’s not as much space devoted to spiritual warfare outside of the self. This is probably the biggest biblical issue I have with the book. Spiritual warfare in Scripture is both internal and external. There are both sin issues in the self (problems of the heart) and satanic attacks that come at us from the outside. Job, whom Comer references more than once, was actually attacked by Satan himself. And many of the people whom Jesus heals in the New Testament were plagued by demons and evil spirits. We can’t “de-supernaturalize” Scripture. We can’t ignore the presence and power of evil in the spiritual realm. What does that mean here? For starters, it means that anxiety and depression disorders may very well be the work of Satan and his minions. That doesn’t mean we can’t combat them with the biblical wisdom Comer offers. Indeed, we must! But we also can’t reduce these problems to purely internal ones, to sin issues, excluding or downgrading the work of our enemy. Oftentimes Comer is right that sin is at the heart of these issues. And, as in Job’s case, the external attacks of Satan and his minions can bring our sin issues to the surface. But it’s not always the case that our suffering is rooted in personal sin, and Scripture leaves a lot of room for the evil workings of Satan and demons and the effects that such work can have on the body and mind. In all cases, Jesus is the solution, but how that looks exactly may not be as simple as Comer suggests.
Should You Read the Book?
Yes! Don’t let my critiques mislead you. I LOVED this book. Comer’s writing is energetic and conversational, and his message is steeped in Scripture, through and through. We need that, now more than ever. But we also need to be balanced and try to account more fully for the biblical witness and the historical gap between ourselves and the biblical cultures of Scripture, without sacrificing the universal human struggles with sin and the universal need for redemption through Christ. This is a helpful and encouraging book that’s worth your time.